I’ve had several encounters with St. Bavo Kerk, a beautiful late Gothic cathedral located right in the centre of Haarlem in The Netherlands. Like many churches in Europe, St Bavo was built on the site of an older church that existed from the 12th century, however it was only in the 15th century that it was altered and expanded into a large cathedral. St Bavo started off a Catholic church but bore witness to the wave of Protestantism, finally becoming a Protestant cathedral in 1578.
Magnificent in size, with an impressive wooden ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows, St Bavo is designed (like all Gothic churches) to awe the visitor. Its Pièce de résistance, however, is its pipe organ, for a long time the largest in the world and once even played on by Mozart in 1766, when he was all of ten years old!
I remember walking to St Bavo way back in 1999, accompanied by my younger mama (maternal uncle) to hear an organ concert. Having recently finished by Bachelors in Architecture, I recall I spent most of my time staring at the church interiors and also at times dozing off (put it down to a limited understanding of Western music and a full stomach!).
This visit though, the rich sound of the organ struck me as soon as I set foot inside the cathedral and I found I could appreciate much better the texture of the sound, the acoustics of the absolutely stunning space and the atmosphere of divinity that the combination of space and sound created.
For the children, who had never been to a cathedral before, it was hard to decide where to look: the paved floors that marked the graves of important people, the paintings on the walls, the ceiling so so high, the shining organ, the hushed demeanour of those who sat in the pews hearing the music and seemingly engrossed in prayer, the statue of Mother Mary with her benevolent expression…..
After having spent a couple of hours out there in the Grote Markt thinking the cathedral was closed, I was just happy to be inside. For, call me old-fashioned or slightly crazy, it seems incomplete to visit Haarlem and not come here once!
One of the highlights of visiting my uncle and aunt in The Netherlands is the trip into the heart of Haarlem, the city where they live. Haarlem is a quaint town, the capital of the Noord Holland province and preserved beautifully in a manner typical of Dutch towns.
Haarlem has been in existence since Roman times and grew to become one of the most populated and influential cities in the Medieval times, a centre of trade inundated by Flemish merchants. Haarlem lost its prominent with Amsterdam’s rise during the Golden Age (17th-18th Century). Today, its essentially medieval layout and the visual richness of Gothic architecture is experienced strongly when you walk through it. We enjoyed getting lost in its streets, especially closer to the centre where many streets are quaint, narrow and exclusively pedestrian.
As you must do in a town like this, we gravitated slowly towards the Town Square or the Grote Markt. We knew we were close to this epicentre of Haarlem as soon as we began to hear the distinct music of the street organs and spot them, positioned on a corner or in the middle of a courtyard, people smiling at them as they walked by while some stood to appreciate their intricate facades. The Dutch street organ is a quaint sight, usually family owned and intricately decorated. They used to be all manually operated by an organ grinder but tend to be automated nowadays. I’ve seen them here and there in the cities of Holland before, but never a profusion of street organs like we saw on the Monday we decided to walk through Haarlem. It happened to be a long weekend thanks to the Christian festival of Pentecost or Pinkster. Through the morning, we watched residents and tourists descend into the centre of the city, and the organs seemed to swell in number too! The pictures below are each of/from a different street organ and all from the streets of Haarlem.
Haarlem’s Grote Markt is a delight. The beautiful open space is dominated by the towering St. Bavo Cathedral, which you can see for miles around the city, and the beautiful Town Hall or Stadhuis at the other end. When we first reached, we thought the Cathedral was shut because of Pentecost (it wasn’t though and the St. Bavo experience is the stuff of another post!) and so, we sought to enjoy the activity in the square. And I’m so glad we did!
The most fun thing we did was dance in the Silent Disco. You put on headphones and dance away. Those who watch could think you are crazy and will most certainly have a laugh. The kids and me went in, and then the kids did a second round once more, so kicked were they with the concept and experience! Udai kept wanting to bring the concept back to India (no noise pollution, wow!), only to be told they already have it on the beaches in Goa!
A band was performing in the middle of the Grote Markt, belting out mostly Latino music. As we sat there, sipping our drinks and trying out Poffertjes (A Dutch pancake with toppings, the most popular in summer being strawberries and cream!), a crowd began to gather. And dance! In a jiffy, Aadyaa had dragged me in and there we were, jumping about, surrounded by beautifully dressed couples doing the salsa and the meringue. Udai took the opportunity to polish off some new herring at another food stall.
Then came a church visit, a much-needed ice cream and a giant serving of the Dutch frites topped with mayonnaise and a long, long walk back along the canal and the forest till we reached home. A day well spent, steeped in music and dance, sunshine and conversation!
And before I wind up this long long post, here are my two ‘crowd’ clicks that I really like!
We chose The Netherlands as our summer destination primarily to visit family. It had been a while since I saw my uncle, aunt and cousins who live there. Plus Rahul and the kids had never been to what Rahul teasingly refers to as uncle-land! As soon as we landed, we were enveloped in the warmth of family, but the highlight and the most amazing demonstration of family love was the way Udai’s tenth birthday was celebrated; in his own words, “the best birthday ever!” The large share of the credit, of course, goes to Liduine who the kids call Oma, Dutch for Grandma. But everyone chipped in. Follow the fantastic day in this photo essay of the “best birthday ever”!